Gavin Kearney

Candidate for District 97 school board

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Age: 49
Previous elected experience: None, although I've served on several government advisory boards and task forces
Previous community experience: Member of District 97 Diversity Committee Policy Team, Member of Irving Elementary Diversity and Inclusion Committee,chair of committee on equity, Co-chair of Unity Temple Immigration and Refugee Response Team
Occupation: Attorney - Senior Director of Multi-State Advocacy at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
Education: B.A. Lawrence University; J.D. University of Minnesota Law School

Do you believe that race is the primary predictor of student outcomes in District 97? Please expound.

I do believe that race is a primary predictor of student outcomes in District 97.  All the data I have seen related to educational outcomes and students' educational experiences in the District show persistent, significant disparities by race and ethnicity.  This is true for test scores at every grade level in District 97.  It's also true for related measures, such as student enrollment in Gifted and Talented programs, and student discipline rates, particularly in our middle schools.

I don't think that we, as a District, are fulfilling our mission to provide all students with an excellent education. This is what led me to run for the School Board and I'm committed to working with parents, students, teacher, District leadership and personnel, and the Board to eliminate these disparities.

It is likely that if you're elected to the board, there will already have been a racial equity policy in place. What are your thoughts on a racial equity policy? Do you believe that it is necessary to ensure that race is not a predictor of student outcomes (assuming you believe this is the case)? And if so, how would you ensure that the racial equity policy is effectively implemented?

I am a strong proponent for a District equity policy.  As a member of DivCo's Policy Team, I spent a significant amount of time developing recommendations grounded in the best policies around the country and in my experience as a long-time racial justice attorney. Since the first draft was issued, the District's policy has evolved from a statement of broad aspirations to an effective policy that provides the backbone for a sustained, District-wide effort to root out inequities and advance equity. Many of the provisions I pushed for with my DivCo partners have been incorporated into the policy and I'm eager to put it into action.

To ensure effective implementation, we pushed for the policy to include a clear accountability framework.  The policy requires effective stakeholder engagement throughout its implementation, including engagement of those most impacted by current inequities. The policy requires the District to set long-term and annual equity goals, describe the strategies it will take to meet those goals, and measure results to ensure that progress is being made.  Where strategies aren't producing results, the policy requires the District to explain why and describe how it will fix things.  All of this must happen transparently, and the policy provides stakeholders with the opportunity to shape plans and strategies, and to weigh in on progress.

This is a strong foundation to build upon.  As a Board member, I will ensure that the spirit and letter of the policy are followed.  To succeed, we will need to build trust and effective partnerships and a willingness to engage criticism without defensiveness and in a spirit of problem-solving. I'm committed to both of these things.  As we work toward long-term change, I'm also interested in addressing urgent issues where possible.  Recently, middle school students in the District have been speaking out on issues that affect their day-to-day experiences in the schools.  Their testimony at a recent Board meeting was powerful and troubling, and their courage was inspiring.  As a District, I think we need to take them seriously and work with them to address issues that merit immediate attention.

Do you believe that the district's Gifted, Talented and Differentiation (GTD) program needs to be reformed? If so, what reforms do you have in mind for the program?

I do believe it needs to be reformed.  I don't think that a school district should label some of its students "gifted and talented" and not others.  The message it sends to those students outside of the program is damaging and unacceptable.  Racial disparities in our GTD programs are particularly troubling because they deny deserving students advanced learning opportunities and perpetuate negative stereotypes. 

I would like to see the District move to a "push-in" approach where differentiation happens in the classroom.  This will require effective training and supports for teachers and a "growth mindset" orientation - all students should be challenged and we must proceed from the understanding that all students are capable of growth and learning.  Some students will need further interventions beyond classroom differentiation to serve their learning needs and we should ensure that this occurs.

Do you believe that the D97 school board is a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars? If so, in what ways? If you don't believe this, what changes will you advocate on the board to make it so?

I do believe that the D97 school board is a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.  I view our tax investments as a reflection of our values.  For District 97, our taxes ensure that our students learn in smaller classrooms – a critical determinant of education quality, and that they are provided with other supports needed to advance their learning and growth.  The bulk of taxes for D97 go to personnel, most notably our teachers. Both of my parents were teachers and I have tremendous respect for the important and challenging work that teachers do.  For District 97 to provide the quality of education we expect and value as a community, we need to ensure that teacher compensation is competitive with our peer districts and the current Board has done that. 

I also appreciate concerns over our growing property taxes.  I work in the non-profit sector and my wife is an educator.  We're well aware of the impact of property taxes on our income and know that there are many Oak Parkers who struggle more than we do to pay their bills. I have over a decade of management experience in the non-profit sector and appreciate the need to advance mission within the context of limited resources.  If elected to the Board, my focus will be on meeting our educational goals through the most effective use of existing resources.  I think this is doable and my understanding from conversations with current and past Board members is that District 97 is on solid fiscal ground for the foreseeable future.

Do you believe that the D97 board adequately incorporates the voices of people most likely to be impacted by its decisions (i.e., students, teachers, faculty and staff) into its decision-making process? If not, what are some ways that the board can more adequately incorporate these voices into its decision-making process?

This is an area where I think the District needs to do much better – I don't think this is a current District priority and it should be.  I have participated in a number of community forums and events, including around development of the equity policy, where the purpose of the event was unclear and stakeholders left frustrated because their voice and input did not seem valued.  Many people have shared similar experiences with me and at a recent Board meeting where the equity policy was discussed, a teacher representing the Teacher's Association testified to express support for the equity goals and frustration with the fact that teachers, an absolutely critical stakeholder group, had not been sufficiently engaged in developing the policy.

I want the District to develop best practices for community engagement that ensure key voices are heard, including those families most impacted by current inequities.  Such best practices would include:

  • A clear articulation of why community engagement is critical to advancing equity that describes the many benefits of bringing diverse perspectives to help us understand issues, develop effective solutions and build support for implementing them.
  • Identifying multiple strategies for reaching diverse voices.  Periodic e-mails don't get the job done.  We need to proactively seek out diverse voices.  This includes trying different means of communication, hosting events where and when families can attend, and providing supports like childcare.
  • Having clear goals and evaluating whether the goals are being met - are we reaching everyone we need to?  Is their input informing our decisions? Are we effectively communicating the rationale behind our actions?  Evaluation allows us to use trial and error to find strategies that work best.
  • Ensuring that community engagement events are purposeful and build trust.  Too many events feel like they're just checking a community engagement box.  Goals for any event should be clear to all participants, people's time and input should be valued, criticism should be invited, and participants should know how their input will inform District decision-making.

Some school buildings in D97 are experiencing severe overcrowding. Do you believe that the board has adequately addressed this issue? If not, what ideas will you bring to the board to address this issue?

My understanding is that our current overcrowding is driven by actual increases in enrollment significantly exceeding projected increases.  I don't know whether the actual increases could have been better projected, but I appreciate the inherent uncertainty of predicting future events.

One criticism I have heard from parents at Lincoln, where overcrowding is particularly severe, is that there should have been more effective communication between the District and the school to understand the impacts that overcrowding was having and to develop effective solutions.  Parents have spoken of flimsy dividers between classrooms, lack of spaces where the whole school can come together, and teachers wheeling their class supplies and materials down the hall because they lacked a central place to keep their things.  They've also told me that they didn't have a mechanism for raising concerns and having them dealt with, and that lowered morale around what was already a less than ideal situation.  I know that concerns remain around whether current expansion plans will meet the school's needs and I would want to look into that as a Board member.  I would also want to see if there are lessons to be learned from our flawed projections.

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